Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates.
At the first gate, ask, “is it true?”
We are rushing – as usual – to leave the house. Today, it is to make the bus for Olivia’s first field trip – a two-hour zoo outing. Her teachers have been prepping her class all week – painting pictures, reading books, and singing animal songs. She is so excited for this new experience that she is downstairs and dressed before Lori and I have even sipped our morning coffee. Sure, her shoes are on the wrong feet, and her skirt is tucked into her underwear, but she is ready.
Nick and Gabe, on the other hand, lollygag their way through breakfast.
“You don’t want Olivia to miss her bus,” I remind them, forced glee with an undercurrent of annoyance lacing my tone. When we finally wrangle the kids to the car, I open the door, expecting the dome lights to go on as they always do.
Unless the battery is dead because someone played with the switches and left those lights on.
“NICK!” I snap. “You left the lights on again! How many times have I told you to leave them alone?!”
“I didn’t,” he says, bewildered, as he tests all of the buttons overhead. “I swear. I didn’t touch them!”
It is then that I notice that the master light switch is set to Off. When I push it to Door, the lights flick back on.
I am so ashamed.
“Sorry, Nick. I was wrong and I’m so sorry.”
“That’s OK,” he responds, but I see a little of that beautiful light dim in his eyes.
I can’t keep doing this.
At the second ask, “is it necessary?”
“Gabe, can you give Skippy water? He’s thirsty. And he can’t use his paws to get his water! That would be silly!”
My sister-in-law, mother of 4 spirited kids, shared that her kids respond better when she makes things fun and that maybe I might consider doing the same since my kids see my mouth moving, but hear none of the words that come out of it. I figure I’ll give it a try, but I think she meant that it had to be genuinely fun, not tight-smile-through-clenched-teeth fun.
Gabe keeps walking towards the table, one hand holding his snuggie, the other pressed to his mouth as he sucks his fingers.
“Gabe,” I say more insistently. “What is your job in the morning?”
“I don’t know.”
“Seriously?! It’s the same job you have every morning. Give. Skippy. Some. Water.”
“OK.” He moseys over the drawer to get a cup, then meanders to the bathroom to fill it. When I hear the water running a little too long, I walk over to find him standing on the stool, staring out the window as water overflows from the cup and into the sink.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?”
He really has no idea what he’s doing. I can see it in his unfocussed eyes. Playing in the alley until 9 after a full day of camp completely wore him out. There’s a reason why he slept so late, why he couldn’t rouse himself to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night and a pile of laundry now awaits me by the basement door.
Why no matter how many times I say something, it’s just not going to happen today.
He’s tired. I know this. I just didn’t take the time to see it.
“Hey buddy,” I say gently. “That’s a lot of water for Skippy! He’s a dog, not a camel! How ’bout we give him a little less?”
It’s the first one this morning.
At the third gate ask, “is it kind?”
“Good morning, Olivia! Guess who’s going to the zoo today!” I push her door open, and am surprised to find her room empty.
I pop back into the hall.
“I downstairs!” An enthusiastic voice peeps in reply.
OK, that’s weird. Usually, she’s snuggled in her Hello Kitty sleeping bag, reluctant to leave her blanket and stuffed animal sanctuary.
But today, she has turned all of kitchen lights on and is standing by the back door, one strap of her backpack slung over her shoulder.
She looks like a bag lady.
“Oh, Olivia” I chide, shaking my head. “What do we have here?” I untuck the denim skirt from her inside-out underwear and twist it into place. “The tag goes in the back, sweetie, and you need to see the pretty pattern on your underwear, remember?”
She nods, then starts chewing on her finger.
“And your shoes,” I sigh, undoing the velcro straps. “How are you going to walk around and see the animals if they’re on the wrong feet?”
“I sorry, Nana,” she sniffs, eyes downcast. “I going to the zoo today.”
“That’s right. You are going to the zoo today.”
“I get dressed by myself.”
“Yes, you did get dressed…” My voice trails off…by yourself, because you are smart, independent, and everything I say I want my children to be.
“I am a BIG girl,” she asks tentatively, her almond eyes looking up into mine.
“You are my BIG girl, and I am so very proud of you.”
She throws her arms around me, and I squeeze her body close to mine. I want to hold this moment forever.
So many words
So many gates
So many times to stay silent
And just be